Jimmie Johnson had quite a season. Ten wins, 20 top-fives and 24 top-10s, Johnson became NASCAR's first back-to-back Nextel Cup Series Champion since teammate Jeff Gordon. Statistics aside, he was the class of the field, especially in the final ten-race Chase for the Cup showdown. He saved the best for the last.
"We knew we couldn't put our guards down," said Johnson of the battle between himself and Gordon. "We knew who we were racing-- and they had an amazing year. And we knew we had to fight to the very end to get this thing done. That's why I'm really proud of this team and what we've done this year."
Johnson recorded an average finishing position of 5th in the final 10-race stretch, compared to Gordon's 5.1 average. The incredibly close fight came down to a 77-point margin in the end, much due to Johnson's numerous wins resulting in bonus points.
"We outscored and earned more points than any other year," Johnson said. "Jeff, being in second, earned more points than any other champion in the Chase. So we really had to go out and race for this thing and fight for it. That's why we kept that perspective, and tried to keep ourselves in line and not let our minds get ahead of ourselves. We needed to go out there and get the job done."
Despite cruising to the Cup in the final race, Johnson suffered his fair share of misfortunes, mostly during the summer stretch. A 39th place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 followed by another DNF in the Texas spring race put him behind the 8-ball from the get go. Then came blown tires at Pocono, Chicagoland and Indianapolis that put a rather large dent in his championship hopes. Leaving the Brickyard, Johnson dropped to ninth in the standings, over 600 points behind Gordon. But he slowly worked his way back up to sixth before the start of the Chase, when the points were equalized. The key was that most of Johnson's bad luck came in the middle of the summer, instead of in the midst of the Chase.
"We had some tough tracks in there," admitted Johnson. "They're on our radar to pick those performances up and do better at those tracks. We also had some bad luck. We had great races going at Dover and Chicago, And Indy was going well for us. We got caught up in a couple of accidents throughout the day. So I think we had some bad racing luck. And, fortunately, for us it was during that point of the season, and not part of the Chase."
With team owner Rick Hendrick earning his seventh Cup title, many are labeling Hendrick Motorsports as the newest dynasty in NASCAR. In the early years, Petty Enterprises held that fame thanks to Richard Petty's seven championships. With the success of Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing ruled the circuit in the late '80s to mid '90s. Hendrick's first title came in 1995 with Gordon and was followed up one year later by teammate Terry Labonte's championship. The No. 24 Chevrolet again claimed top honors in '97, '98 and in 2001. Johnson became the team's third different champion in 2006 and followed it up this season with No. 2. Talk about a dynasty?
"I think Hendrick Motorsports and what Rick has done in the sport without a doubt deserves that title," Johnson agreed. "And obviously the 24 and 48 shops being together, we've been able to be part of that and help in a way, and help get that win total up for Rick, and the championship total up for him. So he is certainly worthy of that, and is one of the legends of our sport."
In only his sixth full season of racing at the premier level, Johnson promises to live up to the standard of representing the series as champion for the second consecutive year.
"I think that to be a good champion you need to be-- proud of what you've done and carry yourself with that pride and let people see that excitement and all that comes with that and how you act through it," he said. "I feel last year we were very proud of what we did, and this year we're even more proud of what we've done to be back-to-back. We'll smile all year long, and try to carry this sport in a positive manner."
The 32-year-old, El Cajon, California native could join the likes of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip in becoming a three-time Cup champion. But Johnson foresees a tough road ahead in 2008, especially with the continuous increased level of competition.
"Every year it gets tougher and tougher," Johnson explained. "Teams are getting stronger every year. And you've got guys with more experience. I think we have a great crop of talented drivers that are now years two and three in their Nextel Cup careers. It's only getting more and more difficult as every year goes on."
Johnson won't have much time to let the championship soak in as he's got a full plate of activities lined up until the holiday season. And once he gets some well deserved time to spend at home, it will all start back up a few weeks later in January.
"Our sport really is a year-round sport even though we're not at track racing," he explained. "Just to get prepared for the next season, there is a lot that's going on-- We also have photo shoots and commercials and stuff to get ready to prepare for next year. So December is full.
"But once we get into Christmas, I'll have time to be home and enjoy being home. And enjoy the Christmas/New Year's period of time. As soon as January is here, off to Daytona we go for Cup testing. I hope to run in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, and plus we have preseason testing in Vegas and California all in January so, it's going to be really busy."
Johnson continues his whirlwind of activities before jetting off to New York City for Champions Week on Sunday. The week-long media tour in the "Big Apple" leads up to the annual awards banquet at the famed Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan on Friday, November 30.
"I think I'll really be able to enjoy this experience," he explained. "I did last year, but there was so much going on, and it was such an eye-opening experience. I don't think I savored as much of it as I wanted to. And before I knew it, banquet week was over and we were on our way back home. So I'm looking forward to each day that we're up here for banquet week."